Yellow Jackets

In late summer, the number of yellow and black insects most people call bees is at its highest. Bees belong to the order of insects called Hymentoptera, or membrane wings, which also includes wasps and ants. Most of the yellow and black insects which people fear are not bees at all. Most are wasps. One of the most common and most aggressive of these is the yellow jacket.

How can you tell a honeybee from a yellow jacket? The easiest way is by looking to see if it is fuzzy, orange and black, and if it has a thin, "wasp" waist. Yellow jackets are not very fuzzy, are yellow and black, and have a thin waist between the thorax, where the wings and legs are attached, and the abdomen. Honeybees are fuzzy, are orange and black, and have a thick waist. Bumblebees are also fuzzy but they are so much larger that few people have trouble telling them from honeybees.

Yellow jackets are not pollinators like bees but they do play a role in nature that directly helps people. They eat caterpillars and beetle larvae which can be a problem to people and the plants we grow, and they get rid of dead animals by helping to eat them. 

When people spread out food at a picnic, they are putting out many of the things yellow jackets like to eat. Sweet soft drinks, fruits and jams, hot dogs, bologna and other meats are all tempting to yellow jackets. Their natural foods include sweets like fruit, and meat such as caterpillars and other insects. In late summer, the natural sources of some of these foods are becoming scarce and yellow jacket numbers are at their highest. It is no wonder they come around and cause problems.

Why do wasps seem so active and nasty in the late summer? Well, unlike honeybees, most wasps will die once the frosts of winter come. The only way wasps will survive to another year is by producing new queens which will hibernate and start new nests next spring. In late summer there are many workers gathering food for the new queens and the males which will mate with them. They are very protective of their young and very busy bringing them food!

Wasps are more likely to sting than honeybees are. When a honeybee stings it dies. It is not good for the honeybee hive to lose workers without a very good reason. Wasps can sting without dying. They can be more aggressive without causing problems for the colony or nest.

What to do:

  • Avoid getting stung.
  • Stay calm and watch what yellow jackets do. Watching them as they hurry in and out of their nest can be fascinating. Just don't get too close!
How to avoid getting stung:
  • Don't wear sweet smelling perfumes, deodorants, sun tan lotion, or hair spray.
  • Wait until just before eating to put out food for a picnic. Cover up food items and beverage cans so wasps can't get into them. Drink with a straw to avoid a nasty surprise.
  • Keep trash cans as far away from outdoor eating spots as possible and keep them emptied and as clean as possible.
  • Don't swat at yellow jackets, quick movements make them more aggressive. Killing one gives off a chemical which calls more and they show up ready for a fight!

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